For those of you fed up with picking over the bones of 2016, I’m delighted to say that 2017 is starting with a literary bang. So many enticing books out in January that this will be a two-post preview, something not warranted for several months. My first choice – the subject of a good deal of pre-publication brouhaha for months – wanders about the globe but, according to the publishers, tells ‘the very story of America’. Like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, one of 2016’s much-praised titles, the theme of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is slavery. In what sounds like a very ambitious debut, Gyasi’s novel follows the fortunes of two sisters – one sold into slavery, the other a slave-trader’s wife – taking her readers across three continents and seven generations. Weary comments about hype aside, this does sound well worth a read.
Nadeem Aslam can always be relied upon to deliver a novel to get your teeth into and The Golden Legend sounds like no exception. When Nargis loses her husband – caught in cross-fire and shot by an American – she comes under increasing pressure from the military to pardon his killer. In a city riven with fear at the broadcasting of intimate secrets from its mosques, Nargis is already terrified that her own past will be revealed. In ‘his characteristically luminous prose, Nadeem Aslam reflects Pakistan’s past and present in a single mirror – a story of corruption, resilience, and the hope that only love and the human spirit can offer’ say the publishers. Like Kamila Shamsie, Aslam has a knack for the kind of vivid storytelling that helps enlighten Westerners like me about this part of the world.
This one’s here partly because I can’t resist novels set in places I’ve visited on holiday. Set in the seventeenth century with the Western world on the brink of the Enlightenment, Meelis Friedenthal’s The Willow King follows a Dutch melancholic student who arrives in the famous Estonian university town of Tartu with a parrot in tow. Laurentius has been drawn to Tartu in the hope of a scientific explanation for his unhappiness but finds himself attracted back into the world of superstition and magic familiar from his childhood. Holiday nostalgia aside, it sounds intriguing and it’s published by Pushkin Press who seem to have a particularly sharp editorial eye.
Laurentius’ childhood home doesn’t sound a million miles away – literally and metaphorically – from Wiola’s in Wioletta Greg’s debut Swallowing Mercury. Wiola lives in a small village with her taxidermist father, seamstress mother and a black cat. Without having read it, I suspect the publisher’s slightly opaque blurb will be more useful than any summary I can come up with: ‘Wiola lives in a Poland that is both very recent and lost in time. Swallowing Mercury is about the ordinary passing of years filled with extraordinary days. In vivid prose filled with texture, colour and sound, it describes the adult world encroaching on the child’s. From childhood to adolescence, Wiola dances to the strange music of her own imagination.’ Sounds a little fey, I know, but engaging enough to warrant further investigation for me, and Greg’s a poet which augurs well for her writing.
No doubts about my last choice. Claire Fuller’s prize-winning debut Our Endless Numbered Days was a joy so hopes for Swimming Lessons are understandably high. Gil Coleman’s wife has been missing for twelve years when he thinks he sees her standing on a pavement. Summoned home, his two children set about trying to solve the mystery of her disappearance and whether their father has been entirely truthful with them. Fingers crossed for more absorbing story-telling from Ms Fuller. Beautiful jacket, too.
That’s it for the first January post. A click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis should you want to know more. Part two, which will not set foot outside the USA, to follow very shortly…